by Byron Gin
Diane Jackson Cole '74
iane Jackson Cole '74 sits before an antique wooden loom in her Concord, N.H., studio, pumping a foot pedal to change the pattern in the harness. With each motion, she adds another row of earth-toned yarn to the fabric on the loom, and intricate patterns begin to appear. Cole looks at peace in her cream-colored room, surrounded by photographs of her weaving. The piece she is working on now will likely become the prototype for a line of high-end blankets to be sold through specialty stores around the world.
As a fine arts major at UNH, Cole wanted to master every artistic medium. Inspired by teachers such as John W. Hatch, Maryse Searles and John Laurent, she threw herself headlong into oil painting, ceramics and weaving. Then one of her mentors gave her some advice that would change her life. "Develop your own sense of style, and then you can use any medium to express it," he told her. Cole loved to work with color and texture, and decided that an intense focus on weaving would help her hone her skills and create that distinctive style. After graduation and study in England, she bought a loom and opened her own studio in Kennebunk, Maine.
Cole began creating one-of-a-kind, handwoven pieces, from huge tapestries to throws in such subtle colors that they resembled watercolor paintings. She launched a wholesale production line, which she exhibited and sold around New England, often working seven days a week. "It never occurred to me to work for someone else," she says. "Work was never something I went to; it was just part of my life."
When representatives from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's showed up on her doorstep to order hundreds of her pieces, Cole knew it was time to increase production. She partnered with a manufacturer to start Kennebunk Weavers and hired a staff to reproduce her designs much faster, using 20th-century antique looms. After her partner's death in 1988, a minority shareholder in the small company made life difficult for her and her employees, and Cole walked out. To her surprise, 32 of 36 employees came with her. "It felt like I was being ripped open," she says. "My employees' support gave me the courage to start again."
That was when Cole launched DJC Design Studio Inc., which she has turned into a successful international export business based in Concord, N.H. The company produces handcrafted blankets, throws, tapestries and clothing, and exports them to some 30 countries, where they are sold through 4,000 stores. "It was the right decision," she says. "With a new company, I had design control and the ability to treat employees with dignity and respect."
Today the greatest threat to the company comes from the massive influx of cheap imports from the Third World. Since there's no way to patent textile designs, cheap imitations of Cole's designs and those of other artisans' flood the marketplace, resulting in what she calls "the Walmartization" of the industry. Though the competition has hurt small businesses, DJC Design Studio included, Cole refuses to compromise her standards. "I have a lot of loyal customers, some who've bought my pieces since the 1970s. There are still people who care about original designs and quality craftsmanship."
Cole credits her success as a businesswoman to three factors: the lessons she learned from her entrepreneurial parents, who had a bakery in Amesbury, Mass.; her grandmother's support and interest in the company; and her fine arts education. In her view, successful entrepreneurs possess integrity and high standards and give their employees plenty of opportunities to grow, learn and contribute their ideas.
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